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From the discomfort zone: Brand in the new context

Unless the brand creates friendship with the customer, there’s little chance of its survival in the market.

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Published:May 25, 2014 12:50 am
A brand can stick to the customer’s mind like a friend socially does only through Brand Friendship, and not through commercial transactions. ( Source: Reuters ) A brand can stick to the customer’s mind like a friend socially does only through Brand Friendship, and not through commercial transactions. ( Source: Reuters )

In 300 years of invention, failure and fine-tuning, the brand has put in place some real value in products and services for customers. The way the world has changed in the last 20 years is incomparable to transformations in the last three centuries. The biggest disruption has been the breaking of frontiers among countries, enabled by digital technology.

This colossal phenomenon brought in a new language in the social context in total discord with three preceding centuries. We just cannot look at the brand today as we did traditionally. Its most critical aspect now is to deliver quality that customers want. Unless the brand creates friendship with the customer, there’s little chance of its survival in the market. Why is that?

Quadra orbit of human friendship: In this third part of my Brand Friendship series, let me explain by first tracing our social inclination. By nature, human desire has a cyclic logic of friendship. It is surrounded with trust, functional need and emotion. These drive a quadra orbit of human friendship comprising happiness, love, work and the social context where these attributes flourish, and which cannot be dislocated.

Happiness is what we desire most at any age. It extends to love in multiple senses. From livelihood to lifestyle, work embeds life, the struggle to achieve. All of this functions in a social paradigm of cocooning collectiveness. Working in an environment of shared trust through understanding elevates us towards the human desire for happiness.

This positive social system forms the business foundation on which we build awareness and over time, befriend brands. For example, possessing a musical record, CD, DVD or book is not the trend anymore. The urge to possess these products is diminishing. You’ll find even their physical points-of-purchase, the brick-and-mortar stores, are closing. Everything is getting Internet driven for the purpose of using and sharing. With no individual desire to possess, it is evident that a brand can stick to the customer’s mind like a friend socially does only through Brand Friendship, and not through commercial transactions.

Brand is a social being: In my 1994 book, Art of the Brand, I’d written that brands have a role to act as social beings. A few months ago in the French countryside I experienced exactly how a brand can become social. Opposite the entrance of a hypermarket, called Super U, I saw a life-size sculpture of a cow with an indication arrow saying, ‘Get fresh cow milk’. A vending machine outside the store dispensed fresh milk from cows in nearby villages 24×7. Freshness is assured, farmers replenish milk twice a day. Delivery is automated and hygienically superior. An adjacent machine has different sized bottles for holding quantities of 20 cl, ½ litre, 1 and 2 litres.

I found this was Super U’s superb way of developing Brand Friendship with customers, even by offering four quantity options. It’s not about differentiation, but brand distinction. With modern digi-tech, you get fresh cow milk the way a milkman used to bring it directly from the farm, not industrially processed as milk generally is in developed countries. This is an example of how digi-tech power can silently enable the customer to enjoy genuine, fresh, local farmland experience.

Inventors created branding culture: Both in Europe and America, commercial branding culture originated with inventors who wanted to protect their inventions. They used the trademark as commercial power. Brand history shows that only when customers experience enough distinction in the knowhow of a product or service, will they pay premium for the brand. Such brands deliver better profit for the company. Trading of available market products and stamping them as brands is not considered branding. Instead such stamping makes the brand quotient vulnerable.

Self-help brands: With the birth of King Kullen, the world’s first supermarket invented by American Michael Cullen in 1930s, branding underwent another stage. The self-help purchase pattern of supermarkets brought an era of disruption worldwide. Behavioural and consuming pattern changed with the joy of shopping freedom. The brand had to become a self-selling provocation at the point-of-purchase.

With no behind-the-counter retailer to advice on products, brand communication in packaging had to incorporate all details. Shoppers now have the choice of multiple brands in the same category, so commercial self help branding had to be created for their liberalised shopping behavior. Brands in every category have to perform, from innovation to quality distinction translated as brand communication because shoppers make their purchase choice in a matter of just a few seconds. Simultaneously, the brand had to create strong friendship with retailers and distributors to get the right retail visibility. If your brand can create strong friendship with the trade, it will obviously have a rub-off effect, thus creating Brand Friendship with shoppers.

Metaphoric magnifying devices to create Brand Friendship: Past centuries, even past decades, have not faced this onslaught of everyday changing phenomenon that has overshot the invisible boundaries of imagination. Only social aspects can shape your business now; nothing exists outside social magnification. To keep your business up and running you need to use three metaphoric devices at the same time, the microscope, binoculars and telescope.

he microscope will magnify the incoherence between your enterprise brand and customers in the competitive environment so you can take short-term actions to reduce risks. Simultaneously, the binoculars will close the gap between your midterm goals and their implementation. Looking through the telescope, your long-term vision will come closer towards planning and execution.

These three metaphoric magnifying instruments bring you customer proximity for Brand Friendship in the short, mid and long term. Don’t forget to put the Brand Friendship element in your product, point-of-purchase and in disruptive, unconventional communication so that the customer embraces your brand as a friend in his/her social context.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at

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